New Orleans Saints 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Drew Brees has gotten lost in the discussion about the top quarterbacks in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, with guys like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, etc getting most of the attention, but Brees has been as good as any of those quarterbacks and as valuable to his team as any of those quarterbacks over the past 2 seasons. He’s completed 68.7% of his passes for an average of 7.64 YPA, 65 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions over the past 2 seasons, while leading the Saints to a #2 finish in rate of moving the chains in 2014 and then another #2 finish in that measure in 2015. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked quarterback in 2014 and their 6th ranked quarterback in 2015.

Brees has had an incredible career in general, completing 66.4% of his passes for an average of 7.53 YPA, 428 touchdowns, and 205 interceptions in his career, while currently ranking 4th all-time in passing yards and 3rd all-time in passing touchdowns, two numbers he could easily add to significantly going forward. He’s also played in 174 out of 176 possible regular season games in the last 11 seasons. The reason he’s been getting overlooked over the past couple seasons, despite his likely Hall-of-Fame career, is the fact that the Saints have gone just 14-18 combined over the past 2 seasons, missing the playoffs both times.

That’s not Brees’ fault though, as the defense has finished dead last in rate of moving the chains allowed in both 2014 and 2015. In fact, Brees has been carrying this team. His age is becoming a concern though, as he goes into his age 37 season. We’ve seen quarterbacks like Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Carson Palmer play at a high level into their mid-30s in recent years, but everyone declines sooner or later. Manning reminded us last season that it can happen in the blink of an eye. Going into the final year of his contract, it’s also possible that this is Brees’ final season in New Orleans.

Most around the team expect him to inevitably sign a short-term extension with the Saints. There are just too many reasons to do it. Obviously Brees wants more long-term assurances and guarantees than he has now, as he heads into his late 30s. The Saints, meanwhile, want to lower his cap hit for 2016, which is currently at 30 million and would undoubtedly go down with an extension. Plus, Brees is far too valuable to this team. Given the lack of talent around Brees on this team, especially on defense, this would almost definitely be a last place team without Brees. With him playing at a high level, they at least have a shot at a playoff chance. Regardless of what happens contract wise, Brees will be here in 2016 and the Saints will pray he keeps up his high level of play. It’s one of the few things this team has going for them.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Another thing the Saints have going for them on offense is 4th year left tackle Terron Armstead, a 2013 3rd round pick. Since becoming a full-time starter prior to the 2014 season, Armstead has made 27 starts in 2 seasons, finishing 27th among offensive tackles in 2014 and 3rd among offensive tackles in 2015, a major breakout year. Given how valuable top level left tackles are, the Saints didn’t let Armstead get anywhere near the open market, locking him up on a 5-year, 64.5 million dollar extension, ahead of what would have been his contract year in 2016. He’s a one-year wonder as a top player, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and he’s gotten better in every year he’s been in the league, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Armstead plays at a high level for 4-5 years.

The rest of the Saints’ offensive line is pretty solid as well and the unit is one of the Saints’ strengths. With the exception of right guard, the Saints have proven starters at every position on the offensive line, starting Tim Lelito at left guard, Max Unger at center, and Zach Strief at right tackle. Strief’s an aging veteran, going into his age 33 season, but he’s probably the best of the bunch. A late bloomer, Strief has made 69 starts in 5 seasons since becoming a starter in 2011 and has finished in the top-23 of offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 4 of those seasons, including each of the last 3.

The Saints drafted Stanford offensive tackle Andrus Peat 13th overall in 2015 to be Strief’s eventual replacement, but, for now, he’ll need to lock down a starting job at right guard, after struggling on 426 snaps as a rookie, between guard and tackle, as a 6th offensive lineman who came in when injuries struck. Now with long-time starting right guard Jahri Evans gone, Peat will compete with veteran Senio Kelemete, a career backup with 5 career starts in 4 years in the league. Kelemete struggled in limited action last season and Peat, with his first round pedigree, should be considered the heavy favorite. Whether he plays well or not remains to be seen, but he has the ability to be much better in his 2nd year in the league.

Tim Lelito and Max Unger round out the offensive line. Lelito had somewhat of a breakout year in his first year as a starter in 2015, as he made 13 starts and finished 28th among guards on Pro Football Focus. Whether he can keep that up remains to be seen. Lelito went undrafted in 2013 and made just 4 starts in his first 2 years in the league, struggling mightily on 456 snaps between guard and center in those two seasons. If he has another good year, he could get a significant contract next off-season as a free agent.

Unger, meanwhile, was going into his contract year as well, but received a 3-year, 22 million dollar extension this off-season. Even ahead of his age 30 season, it’s a solid value. The 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons in the league, finishing 14th last season and maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ #2 center in 2012. Unger played all 16 games in 2015, after an injury plagued 2014 season, and should be a solid starter at the very least again in 2016. It’s an overall very solid Saints’ offensive line, highlighted by All-Pro caliber left tackle Terron Armstead.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The guard has officially changed at wide receiver for the Saints, as 10-year veteran Marques Colston was let go this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 33 season. Colston had spent 10 years with the Saints since they took him in the 7th round in 2006 and is the Saints’ all-time leader in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, but he remains unsigned as of this writing. There’s a reason for that, as he struggled in 2015, catching just 45 passes and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked wide receiver out of 121 eligible on 569 snaps as the 3rd receiver. His rapid decline was the start of the change of the guard, but his release makes it official.

Colston was replaced immediately when the Saints used their 2nd round pick on Ohio State’s Michael Thomas, who will spend his rookie year as the 3rd receiver, playing primarily in the “big slot” role that Colston excelled in for many years. The 6-3 212 pound Thomas has a similar frame to Colston, who played last season at 6-4 225, but is obviously much younger with much more upside. He has a chance to be an immediate upgrade. The addition of Thomas also means that the Saints’ top-3 receivers all have 2 years or less of NFL experience going in 2016. It’s a stark contrast to the aging Brees, but it has a chance to be very effective if Brees can still play at a high level and the young players play up to their potential.

Incumbent starters Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead are the “veterans” of the trio, as both came out of college in 2014 and both are going into their 3rd year in the league. They couldn’t have taken different paths to get to this point though, as Cooks was a 2014 1st round pick who was anointed the #1 receiver before the 2015 season started, after flashing in 10 games as a rookie, while Snead spent all of 2014 on the practice squad as an undrafted free agent and beat the odds in a big way to make 9 starts in 15 games in 2015. He’ll have a chance to start all 16 in 2016 if he can stay healthy.

Cooks had the better overall numbers last season, putting up a slash line of 84/1138/9, while Snead put up 69/984/3. However, Snead actually graded out slightly higher on Pro Football Focus, finishing 30th, while Cooks came in 35th. The reason for that is because Snead ran more than 100 fewer routes, as he didn’t get significant playing time until about a month into the season. Snead was better on a per route and per target basis and likely would have led the team in receiving had he gotten as much playing time as Cooks did in 2015. My pick to lead the team in receiving this year is Cooks, just because the former 1st round has higher upside as a player and is long-term going to be a better player, but the Saints have a good duo in Cooks and Snead because both are solid young players. Thomas has upside behind them too as the #3 receiver, though it’s hard to count on rookies.

Thomas wasn’t the Saints’ only off-season addition, as the Saints brought in Coby Fleener, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, on a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal. Fleener, a 2012 2nd round pick, has just 157 catches over the past 3 seasons, but has graded out above average in all 3 seasons. His production has been somewhat limited by the fact that he spent most of Indianapolis in a timeshare with Dwayne Allen, not playing full starter snaps as tight end 1b to Allen’s 1a. The starting job is all Fleener’s in New Orleans, as #2 tight end Josh Hill has been underwhelming in 900 career snaps in 3 years in the league, since going undrafted in 2013.

Fleener also is coming into what has historically been a very tight end friendly offense. Aging tight end Ben Watson caught 74 passes for 825 yards and 6 touchdowns last season, before signing with the Ravens as a free agent this off-season. Fleener has only once graded out above average as a run blocker and might have been overpaid, but he’ll be an upgrade on Watson and have a big role in the offense. He’s not Jimmy Graham, but he could come close to his numbers. Graham averaged about 1,100 receiving yards per year in his final 4 years in New Orleans. Fleener could end up in the 900-1000 yard range on an offense that could have 3 receivers all around that range or possibly even higher. The passing offense has potential, but the engine that makes it go is Drew Brees and not the receivers and Brees is getting up there in age.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Saints seemingly had a “three-headed monster” at running back going into last season, with Mark Ingram and CJ Spiller getting significant contracts in free agency and backup Khiry Robinson showing promise in limited action. That didn’t really work out. Ingram missed 4 games with injury, Spiller 3 games, and Robinson 8 games. In fact, by the end of the season Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet were seeing significant snaps. Cadet is a career backup with less than 100 career touches, while Hightower had been out of the league since 2011 with knee problems. Hightower actually finished 2nd on the team in carries with 96, turning them into 375 yards and 4 touchdowns (3.91 YPC).

Ingram once again led the way with 166 carries in the 12 games he did play. He fared pretty well, rushing for 769 yards and 6 touchdowns (4.63 YPC), while finishing 33rd among running backs on Pro Football Focus. He’s always played well when healthy, with a career 4.27 YPC average, but injuries have always been a problem for him, as the 2011 1st round pick has missed 18 games with injury in 5 years in the league and only once played more than 13 games, way back in 2012.

His career high is 226 carries, meaning the Saints will need Hightower as a backup to take over for Ingram if he gets hurt and give him a breather on early downs. Hightower essentially moves into the Khiry Robinson role in the Saints’ 2nd attempt at a three-headed monster at running back. I wouldn’t be confident in him, considering he has an extensive injury history, averaged just 3.91 YPC last season, and is already going into his age 30 season. He’s an incredible story, but he’s far from an incredible football player at this stage in his career.

CJ Spiller will be given a chance to regain the role he was supposed to have going into last season, but it’s unclear if he has it in him to earn the role. Spiller, signed to a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal last off-season, was supposed to explode statistically in New Orleans’ offense in the old Darren Sproles role; Most expected 60+ catches. Instead, Spiller missed 3 games with injury and was limited in many others, totalling just 70 touches on 200 snaps. Spiller was one of the best all-around backs in the league in 2012, but he’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 straight seasons and has just 167 touches in 22 games over the past 2 seasons. Going into his age 29 season, it’s possible he just doesn’t have it physically anymore. His 3.225 million dollar salary is guaranteed, so he should keep his roster spot, but I wouldn’t expect much from him.

He’s seemingly a perfect New Orleans running back because this team has always passed much more than they’ve run, even when they’ve been good on the ground.  The Saints have averaged 662 pass attempts per season over the past 6 seasons. Last season, New Orleans running backs caught 127 passes, led by Ingram’s 50. The targets will be there for the taking again in 2016. However, Ingram should get the bulk of the catches over Spiller again. It’s a capable group of backs on an offense that has a solid supporting cast around the quarterback, but that really needs the quarterback to play at a high level if they’re going to finish among the best offenses in the league for the 3rd straight season. And the Saints will need to if they’re going to have any prayer of making the playoffs, given the sorry state of their defense.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

That sorry New Orleans defense has finished in dead last in rate of moving the chains allowed in back-to-back seasons and was undoubtedly the least talented defense in the league going into the off-season. They didn’t add a ton in free agency and should finish among the league’s worst defenses once again. The Saints have a league high 29 million in dead money on their cap this season, which really thins their roster. The defense has been hit the hardest by far, the result of aggressive free agent signings in past years that did not pan out.

Let’s start with the good on defense though, as they do have a couple really good players, including defensive end Cameron Jordan. Jordan was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked edge defender last season and their 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013, but has been very inconsistent in 5 years in the league. The 2011 1st round pick has graded out below average in his other 3 seasons. He’s no guarantee to be dominant again in 2015, but he’s been dominant in two of the last three seasons. The Saints clearly value him long-term, re-signing him to a 5-year, 55 million dollar extension last year before his huge 2015 season, which otherwise would have been a contract year. Only going into his age 27 season, another huge year could be in the cards for him. The big 6-4 287 pounder will also frequently move inside and rush the passer from the interior in sub packages.

The rest of the defensive end depth chart is not nearly as good. Veteran Paul Kruger is easily their best pure defensive end, even though he was released by the Browns before final cuts, coming off of a down year and owed a non-guaranteed 6.5 million in his age 30 season in 2016. He just arrived in New Orleans, but will be counted on for a big role. He was a nice, cheap signing, as he undoubtedly will make significantly less than 6.5 million in 2016 and he has bounce back potential, as he was a top-20 3-4 outside linebacker in 3 straight seasons from 2012-2014, prior to finishing below average last season.

WIth Jordan mostly playing inside in sub packages, Obum Gwacham, Davis Tull, and Kasim Edebali will compete for pass rush snaps off the edge with Kruger. Gwacham and Tull were 6th and 5th round picks respectively in 2015 (Gwacham by the Seahawks before ending up in New Orleans). Even though Tull was higher drafted, Gwacham was the only one to see action as a rookie, but he played just 98 snaps. Edebali, a 2014 undrafted free agent, is the most experienced one by far, but struggled mightily on 361 snaps in 2015, grading out 103th out of 110 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. None of the trio figures to be much of a threat off the edge, so they need a big year from Kruger.

Things are much better at defensive tackle though. Not only does Jordan often rush the passer from the interior, the Saints also added Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in the first round of the draft and veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley in free agency. Rankins was a great pick at #12 overall, as he was arguably the top defensive tackle in the draft class, and Fairley was also a great deal on a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal. After spending the first 4 years of his career in Detroit, Fairley spent last season with the Rams.

A 2011 1st round pick, it’s hard to call Fairley a bust considering he’s graded out above average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league, including 23rd among interior defenders last season. At the same time, it’s also worth noting that Fairley has missed 19 games with injury over those 5 seasons and has just 30 career starts. He’s averaged 432 snaps per season in his career and played just 422 snaps last season in 15 games (0 starts) with the Rams. He’s a talented player, but weight and conditioning problems have always kept him from his potential.

He has an opportunity to have a big year in New Orleans with little competition for playing time, but probably won’t end up playing much more than 500-600 snaps once again. Most of the players who saw snaps at defensive tackle for the Saints last season were horrible, so Fairley and Rankins are huge upgrades. The one issue is Rankins broke his leg this off-season and is questionable for the start of the season. On a largely talentless defense, they need him back as soon as possible.

The one defensive tackle who wasn’t terrible for the Saints last season was John Jenkins, as the 6-3 329 pounder graded out just below average on 532 snaps, primarily playing as a base package run stuffer. He’s graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, since the Saints drafted him in the 3rd round in 2013, and the 532 snaps he played last season were a career high, but he’s never been terrible and should be solid in another 300-500 snap role as primarily a base package run stuffer. It’s an improved, but still problematic defensive line.

Grade: C

Linebackers

As you can imagine, given how bad their defense as a whole performed last season, the Saints’ linebacking corps has plenty of issues as well. Stephone Anthony was a first round pick by the Saints in 2015 (with the pick they acquired in the Jimmy Graham trade), but he struggled mightily as an every down middle linebacker as a rookie, grading out 79th out of 97 eligible linebackers. He’s expected to move to outside linebacker in his 2nd year in the league in 2016. He has the potential to be much better in his 2nd year in the league, but much better than his horrible rookie year still might not be good and there’s still a chance his struggles continues. Obviously it’s too early to write off a player with a first round pedigree, but his career is not off to a good start.

The reason the Saints are moving Anthony outside is because they added a pair of veteran middle linebackers through free agency, adding ex-Ram James Laurinaitis and ex-Brown Craig Robertson. Laurinaitis is a big name, but he’s going into his age 30 season and has graded out below average in 4 straight seasons since signing a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension with the Rams before the 2012 season. The Rams released him this off-season, getting out of the 12.5 million non-guaranteed remaining over the final 2 years of his contract, following a horrendous 2015 season in which he finished 83rd out of 97 eligible linebackers. Even on a 3-year, 8.25 million dollar deal, the Saints overpaid him.

Laurinaitis has always been an every down middle linebacker and hasn’t missed a game in 7 years in the league, but Robertson could still have a role. After struggling mightily in the first 2 seasons of his career, Robertson actually graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, excelling in coverage. He’s plenty experienced with 37 career starts and would be a better starter than Laurinaitis, but he’s unlikely to win that job, given that Laurinaitis got more from the Saints in free agency (Robertson got just 5 million over 3 years). He’ll likely have to settle for a sub package, coverage specialist role at either middle linebacker or outside linebacker.

In base packages, Dannell Ellerbe is expected to be the starter on the other side outside. That is, of course, if he can stay healthy. Ellerbe has been limited to 7 games by injury in the last 2 seasons and was Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013. He was a valuable part of the Ravens’ Super Bowl team in 2012, which landed him a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal the following off-season, but he’s graded out below average in his other 6 seasons and isn’t getting any better, coming off of two injury plagued seasons going into his age 31 season. He’s missed a total of 44 games with injury in 7 years in the league. Ellerbe’s had to take pay cuts to stay with the Saints in back-to-back off-seasons and has a tenuous grasp on even the two-base package role. Here’s somewhere where Robertson could see playing time. It’s very possible the Saints reshuffle roles in their linebacking corps on multiple occasions in 2016, as they try to make the best of a shaky group.

Grade: D

Secondary

When talking about Cameron Jordan earlier, I mentioned he was one of a couple of good players the Saints have on defense. The other is cornerback Delvin Breaux and his story is pretty incredible. A highly recruited high school player committed to LSU, Breaux fractured two vertebrae in his back in a high school game in his senior year and never played at LSU, though his scholarship was honored and he served as a player/coach. After LSU, Breaux worked his way up from semi-pro football to the arena league to Canadian football to a contract with his hometown Saints last off-season. On an otherwise dreadful New Orleans defense, Breaux finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked cornerback. He’s obviously a one-year wonder, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season and could easily have another strong season in 2016.

Safety Jairus Byrd has the potential to have a strong season in 2016. Byrd was signed to a 6-year, 54 million dollar deal by the Saints two off-seasons ago, after finishing as a top-8 safety in each of the previous 3 seasons, but he missed all but 4 games with injury in 2014 and then was just average in 13 games in 2015. He’s not great anymore, but he’s sadly one of the Saints’ best defensive players. The Saints used a 2nd round pick on Ohio State safety Vonn Bell in this past draft, so that should put some pressure on Byrd to bounce back. Owed 8.3 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2017, this could be Byrd’s final season in New Orleans

Fellow starting safety Kenny Vaccaro also has the potential to be good this season. He was good last year, finishing 27th among safeties, but he’s been very inconsistent in his 3-year career. He finished 23rd among safeties as a rookie, but fell to 85th out of 87 eligible safeties in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, getting benched down the stretch. Perhaps that year was a fluke, given that it was bookended by a couple of strong seasons and he’s still only going into his age 25 season, but it was a horrible fluke and it’s hard to trust the 2013 1st round pick in his 4th year in the league in 2016.

The rest of the Saints’ cornerbacks are not good though. Second year player PJ Williams, who missed his entire rookie season with injury after going in the 3rd round, will start opposite Breaux, with veteran Cortland Finnegan playing the slot. Finnegan used to be one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL, but graded out well below average in every season from 2012-2014. Cut by the Rams following the 2013 season and the Dolphins following the 2014 season, Finnegan briefly retired last off-season, before playing alright on 213 snaps for the Panthers as a mid-season signing in 2015. Going into his age 32 season, Finnegan was signed before the season started this year, but just barely, as he went unsigned until mid-August. Despite that, he figures to have a big role with another 2nd year player, Damian Swann, out for the year with injury. By default, the secondary is the best unit on New Orleans’ defense, but their defense is probably the worst in the league overall.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Saints’ offense should be good once again, but they really don’t have a lot of talent, on either side of the ball, other than aging quarterback Drew Brees. Their defense is arguably the worst in the league, while the offensive supporting cast around Brees is solid, but nothing more. If Brees shows his age in his age 37 season in 2016, this team is likely going to be one of the worst in the league. If Brees can continue to play at a high level, this team at least has a shot at the playoffs, but it’s a long-shot even if he plays really well.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in NFC South

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